Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Baroness Noakes Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Willetts and others have queried whether there is any evidence of a problem. It may be true that there is not much evidence of actual BDS activities by universities to date, but it is certainly true that there is a problem of anti-Semitism on campuses. It may also be true, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, that it is less acute than in the United States—most things are less acute here than in the United States—but I do not think that means we should ignore it. It is clear that the accelerating protests on campuses are having a deleterious effect on Jewish students on campuses. Indeed, the Union of Jewish Students said only last week:

“Jewish students are angry, they are tired, and they are hurt by the continuous torrent of antisemitic hatred on campus since October 7th”.

I am not sure that gives the Union of Jewish Students a veto on whether the Bill should go through, but it indicates that there is still a very real problem.

The current round of student protests—the encampments and related demands—do seem, as I have seen reported, to include BDS demands on the universities. As far as I am aware, none of the universities has yet succumbed and changed its policies on BDS, but at least one has given in to some other demands, such as renaming buildings and changing some other organisational arrangements, and we cannot be sure what universities will do in the longer run. The Bill would close the option of them ever implementing BDS policies and would therefore be one small step to closing that route off and helping to create an environment for Jewish students, who would be even more oppressed if the universities publicly announced BDS policies against them. I do not think it is a very big item, but I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Bill does nothing. I think it does something towards closing off an avenue that universities might be tempted to go down in order to see off the undoubted nuisance of all these student protests.

I would just like to briefly say something about the ONS as well. The ONS reviews all sets of bodies that are on the borderline between the public and private sectors at regular intervals, and it does it in a careful way in accordance with international definitions. These are all careful considerations. It is clear that universities are in a grey area: they are public authorities for the Human Rights Act, are included in the Freedom of Information Act and were included in the Procurement Act that we considered last year. They are already subject to a lot of the public sector laws, and nothing is going to change that. I agree with my noble friend Lord Willetts that this Bill will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is always legitimate to ask on which side of the line these bodies that exist half in and half out fall.

Just being classified by the ONS does not of itself lead to other consequences. There may well be further considerations down the line, but we certainly cannot stop the ONS doing the job that it is set up to do, which is to consider classifications in accordance with international guidelines,

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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My Lords, it seems to me to be fundamental to this Bill that universities and other relevant bodies are included. We are not talking about individual academics having their right to free speech being affected at all. We are talking about institutional behaviour. Yes, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has pointed out, what happens in universities really matters. I also went on a trade trip to China with the vice-chancellors. I remember, because they were the ones sitting in business class. They are a very important part of the fabric of our society—